Quick—off the top of your head—what metal product introduced in the U.S. in 1945 is made from 98 feet of wire, is advertised with one of the most memorable jingles of all times, sells for less than $5.00, has sales totaling more than 300 million, and still is being made in the U.S.?
Here's a hint. It also is the official state toy of Pennsylvania. Maybe not the best hint, unless you live in Pennsylvania.
Did you guess correctly? Did you have a Slinky? Let me rephrase that. Do you have a Slinky? As the official Poof-Slinky Web site states, "the Slinky remains a value-priced toy for children of all ages."
While you may have enjoyed the toy, you might not be aware of its history, and that, my friends, is as interesting as the toy is fun.
According to the Web site, in 1943, Richard James, a naval engineer, was conducting an experiment with tension springs. During the experiment, one of the springs fell to the floor and began to "walk." James took the spring home to his wife, Betty, and asked her if she thought it was something they could pursue. Betty had a vision for a toy and scoured the dictionary, looking for an appropriate name. She came across the word "slinky," a Swedish word meaning stealthy, sleek, and sinuous.
The Slinky debuted at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia in 1945. Both Betty and Richard were skeptical about how the toy would sell. All their doubts were put to rest when all 400 were purchased in 90 minutes. Since then, over 300 million have been sold worldwide.
In the CNBC article "Unwinding the long history of the Slinky," Producer James Segelstein described its introduction. Apparently Richard James worked for two years perfecting the toy and one winter night, he and Betty set up a table at Gimbels. Concerned that there would be no buyers, Betty asked a friend to come along. "I gave her a dollar, and I said, 'Let's go down and we'll each buy one to make [Richard] feel better,'" Betty said. "Well, we got off the elevator and over in one corner, there were just hundreds of people waving dollar bills. And my husband was in the middle of it."
The Slinky story doesn't end there. It becomes more interesting. The family expanded (six children), Richard took off for Bolivia, and Betty ran the factory, moving it from a Philadelphia suburb to Hollidaysburg, Pa.—closer to home.
Although it was developed to be a toy, other applications for the Slinky have been discovered. The Slinky has been used as an antenna by soldiers in Vietnam, as a therapy tool, and for coordination development.
The best part of the story for me is that Slinky still is made in the U.S. Tom James, the inventor's son, gave CNBC a tour of the factory. Stopping by a column of cable, he said, "Our wire comes in 2,000 pound spools of galvanized spring steel wire. It's all American-made in Shelbyville, Ky."
Segelstein reported, "The steel, which arrives as round wire is fed into a flattener at 12 miles an hour & the same flattener created by Tom James's dad, Richard James, more than 60 years ago."
After it's flattened, the wire is fed into a coiler also designed by Richard. James told CNBC that the coiler was off-limits to cameras. Although the process is more than 60 years old, the company worries that foreign competitors could copy it and make knock-off products. Segelstein reported that the mechanism basically wraps 62 feet of wire around a spindle about 80 times, spitting out a new Slinky every 15 seconds. Once spring steel is wound it doesn't unwind.
After being coiled, the Slinkys' ends are crimped (a process that began in 1973) to prevent jabbing. The crimped Slinkys proceed single file along a conveyor belt and—tahdah—they officially become Slinkys, when they take their first steps off the belt. They then are pushed into the boxes automatically and sealed automatically.
I would love to see this operation. (Dan, will the budget cover a trip to Hollidaysburg?)
Maybe I'm over the top in my appreciation for this simple toy, but I assure you it's genuine. For many years, I have put Slinkys in Christmas stockings for my children, who are grown. I was dismayed this past Christmas when I found no Slinkys during my last-minute shopping trip for stocking stuffers. Nothing but empty spaces where Slinkys had been. For the first time in ages, Santa delivered no Slinkys to my family. I won't make that mistake again. I'll shop early this year & like, next week. And I'm buying the metal Slinkys, not the plastic.